Magazine article The Spectator

How New Labour Was Made to Love the Dome

Magazine article The Spectator

How New Labour Was Made to Love the Dome

Article excerpt

ON 2 MAY, the Greenwich Millennium Dome looked doomed. After all, it was a Tory idea. The Labour Opposition had committed itself to conducting a review.

The assumption when the review started was of a choice between scaling the plans down and scrapping them altogether. In January Mr Blair had been notably unwilling to give assurances about its future to the then deputy prime minister, Michael Heseltine. A few months before that the shadow heritage secretary, Dr Jack Cunningham, had been scathing about the plans, refusing to believe the cost would be much less than 1 billion, and agreeing with his junior, Lewis Moonie, that the whole thing was 'a crock of shit'.

There was no support for it in the new Cabinet, none on the Labour back benches, except for those with constituency interests, and precious little in the country at large. The Sun was running a vigorous `Dump the Dome' campaign, and even the Heritage Secretary, Chris Smith, whose pride and joy it should have been, thought it a costly and inappropriate proposition.

Something pretty significant must have happened since the election to change all this. The significant happening was that the dome was saved by one of the three most powerful people in the new Britain, Peter Mandelson, acting on behalf of the other two, Tony Blair and John Prescott.

The body 'reviewing' the millennium project was the Home and Social sub-committee of the Cabinet (HS). From preliminary discussions it was clear that the dome had no more friends in HS than it did anywhere else outside the Conservative party, though even in the early stages the strongest criticism tended to come from those furthest removed from the Labour leadership. The Health Secretary, Frank Dobson, reportedly described it as `the biggest kite in history' (though it is not clear whether this was intended as a colourful image or an impenetrable piece of derogatory Yorkshire). The Welsh Secretary, Ron Davies, was equally critical though, unfortunately, no metaphors have reached us; and the Chief Secretary, Alistair Darling, made it clear that the Treasury was profoundly unimpressed. Of the big hitters, Mr Darling's boss, Gordon Brown, and his Foreign Office neighbour, Robin Cook, were quite clearly opposed to the project from the start.

And so it came to pass in early June that the hapless Heritage Secretary presented a paper to HS recommending various options for the project to go ahead, but much scaled down. As the meeting progressed, though, it began to dawn on all present that Mr Mandelson was suddenly expressing the quite strong view that it would be rash to shelve the dome without further thought. Could it be possible, they began to wonder, that the Minister without Portfolio had been told by the Prime Minister that he 'wanted' the dome, and that HS was not to advise against it? In fact, just in case they did not get the hint, the Deputy Prime Minister, who chairs the committee, had also been tipped off by Mr Blair that the dome was to be a favoured project.

Neither Mr Prescott nor Mr Mandelson was particularly disposed towards the dome, but nor were they as strongly inclined against it as most of their colleagues. So when it became clear that Mr Blair had powerful personal feelings about it, they were more than happy to oblige an unlikely duo smoothly but inexorably driving the project through.

Relations between Mr Prescott and Mr Mandelson have been the subject of much brouhaha during the last few weeks. Many commentators seem unable to decide whether they are friends or enemies from one day to the next. The truth is that they are neither; and they are both. They do not like each other, but there is considerable mutual respect. They are day-to-day allies against Gordon Brown, whom they both fear more than they fear each other. But there is also an 'understanding' between Mr Prescott and Mr Brown, of which Mr Mandelson is jealous. The over-hyped episode earlier this week which saw Mr Prescott ragging a Chinese mitten crab he called Peter about his chances of election to Labour's National Executive had little political significance. …

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